Twenty years ago today…

The Green Ink brand was born on October 9, 1992.

At 8am 20 years ago, I put on my slippers and padded into my new home office, the front room of a one bedroom second floor apartment in East Norwalk, CT.  My Father had leant me a couple hundred dollars for a black and white printer.   I’d been told by family members that, if became destitute, I could stay with them.

I was psyched to have my own business cards, proud to have my name on my own company.  I’d developed the ‘quill’ logo with a local Norwalk designer and the cards, letterhead and envelopes were ready on Day 1.  I made the conscious decision to use my personal email address, HipsterG, as part of my new business identity.  Having my own business meant freedom to call myself who I wanted, to now wear cowboy boots, to grow a pony tail and a mustache. I was no longer having to represent somebody else – I was representing only myself and my business.

I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but I was confident that, despite my lack of formal business education, I’d learned enough about running a media company in those previous six years to not have to work for somebody else anymore.

What I’d realized was that my vision of what an enterprise should be would never coincide with those of my employer.  As much as I appreciated the opportunity they’d given me, I didn’t want to become a junior equity partner in their firm – for a number of reasons, but most of which it wouldn’t have been mine.

My Father used to love to challenge me to think about starting my own business.  “Well, you know, a person usually doesn’t make a LOT of money working for somebody else,” and, “I’ve read that, chances are, if you haven’t started your own business by the age of thirty, you probably won’t.”

I’d turned 29 and I’d been feeling more and more like a trapped bourgeois pig.  I had an ample expense account and a yuppie lifestyle that I’d come to really value, but I knew I’d never be truly fulfilled if I continued the easy path of employment; of not having the responsibilities and therefore freedoms of being 100% accountable for my income.

I’d turned in my company car (a gold Porsche) the week before, bumming a ride to the Hartford train station from a set builder buddy. From that point through the next two years, I was able to use public transportation to cost-effectively travel, discovering that using the train system from East Norwalk was about one third the cost of maintaining a car.

Getting to an appointment that week with my new client at IBM Research in Yorktown Heights was neither quick nor easy, however.  A local train from East Norwalk to Stamford, then a local to Mamaroneck, then a bus over to White Plains train station, then a train up to Mount Kisco, then a cab over to the meeting.  A half hour meeting and a return trip.  A full day of travel.

I soon learned to relish the freedom that taking public transportation afforded me to work and think creatively.  I wrote a lot of songs during these train rides.  I remember the ad at the time ringing true: ‘Your train time is your own time’.

This was the pre-laptop era, but I was able to use notepads to write up drafts of briefs, proposals, and other writings for clients and prospects, actually writing with a pen before typing up my notes when I’d get home.

I’d hit the ground running with two big projects for my former employer already on my plate.  I’d sold them just before giving my resignation, being sure to add in two large buckets for Writer and Producer. These interactive multimedia modules had been the last of my campaign of helping to introduce a new wave of applications to business problems using IBM’s own multimedia development platform.  That platform was abandoned a year or two later as ‘interactive’ development became ‘internet’ development.

I do consider myself to be a pioneer in interactive multimedia application development.  Work I’d supported had been on display at the IBM Think Gallery at 590 Madison Avenue.  I was a panelist at a few conferences.  I remember being up in front of one crowd at the Javitz center telling people all about the ‘information superhighway’ I’d been reading about. Making media interactive was key, and now the delivery mechanism had been developed.  When video could now be played over the internet – and be made interactive – I knew I was in the right profession.

My former boss was grateful that I was leaving on civil terms, not threatening his client relationships, but, in fact, doing what I could to enhance them.  I went after client prospects who had told me that they wouldn’t hire a ‘production company’, but did hire ‘freelancers’ directly.  I’d been hiring freelancers for my company for years and was always a bit jealous of their freedom – and ability to charge what I considered large day rates.

A new, emerging business model allowed internal corporate video production teams to grow and expand according to the requirements – and budgets – of their internal constituents, without having to pay the redundant fees that can accompany layers of unneeded management at a ‘production company’.

I joined a whole crop of day-raters that surrounded internal operations at IBM TV (Stamford, CT), SNET Media Center (New Haven, CT), and Rite Aid TV (Camp Hill, PA), among others.  I found it easy to provide not only my own day rate services, but ultimately, more full service for each of these teams (for example, location videography, editing, graphics and animation), augmenting in-house services with not just writing-producing-directing skills, but whatever else might be required outside.

In each case, I did my best to help the managers of these departments think more like entrepreneurs, as “IBU’s” or Independent Business Units (vs. the money pits they were often perceived to be by the clients they were supposed to be serving).

Even before starting my own business, I’d heeded the advice of mentors who told me I should consider my job to be ‘my business’, to ‘own’ it.  And one very wise man introduced me to the idea of being ‘pro-active’; not just an order taker, but a recommender.  Though this path is one requiring a bit more tact (not wanting to appear overly solicitous or presumptuous), it’s one that has been fruitful for me and helped to differentiate my services from those of other ‘Producers’.

A key to this proactive selling approach is not only being able to suggest to our clients what kind of video they might make, what that creative approach might be, but also being able to know our client’s business well enough to make qualified suggestions on what and how media might best be applied to achieve their goals.  When done well, the client will make your idea their own.  Does it matter who really thought of it if it’s moving forward?

The clients I served were facing a new paradigm and a new challenge: no longer were in-house teams able to remain ‘order takers’; with budget tighteners like Lou Gerstner at the helm, these ‘corporate TV’ centers would have to behave like entrepreneurs – providing value-added agency-type support and treating internal requestors as ‘clients’.

I was fortunate to find an amazing client at IBM TV who welcomed my suggestions.  He knew that the writing was on the wall.  To fail to prove ones ‘value’ to the internal auditors on an ongoing basis (not just at yearly budget reviews) could and would invite closure.  Despite our success in creating a ‘revenue recovery’ center with the studio resources that had been contracted already (about $150K revenue per quarter), IBM TV was shut down in 1994 after the Wall Street Journal ran a story on the ‘cuts that still needed to be made’ by Gerstner.

IBM actually paid more to extricate itself from the contract than it would have cost to let the contract run it’s last two years out.  Perception is everything, and IBM wasn’t supposed to be in ‘the TV business’.   When they were, however, they were saving about fifty percent on production that would have otherwise been outsourced and there was a centralized, consistent approach to their video development.

Thankfully, Green Ink’s model allowed for scaling.  When IBM TV closed in late 1994, I was blessed with a huge winfall being transferred from IBM TV’s ‘internal’ account directly into Green Ink’s.  With IBM TV suddenly out of business, my client was delighted to not have to return the dollars to the requestors, and to be able to fulfill their promised video requirements.  So was I!

The freelancer had become a full fledged production company.

An Old Saybrook house that had formerly been a dentist’s office was now an affordable, more spacious home office environment, one that allowed me to bring in support as needed.

The one drawback of Old Saybrook was that it didn’t have a viable commuter train.  I was forced to give up the freedom of taking public transportation and I bought a used truck.  My life as a ‘road warrior’ continues today, though I’m able to take Amtrak to the city fairly quickly from New London.

I could go through a list of all the people who have been important to Green Ink over the years as resources and employees, but the problem with any list is that someone inevitably gets left off and feels slighted.  Let me say, however, that because of the creative collaboration with those early supporters, those I’ve worked with through the years, and those I consider now to be the core of a growing team, I’ve been able to help deliver quality programs to a long list of clients, 99 percent of whom I’ve truly enjoyed supporting.

I admit that I get a sense of real satisfaction to, sure, have a business that’s now grown to almost 20 people, but most importantly received the trust of a growing number of smart people to help them deliver their messages – to audiences whom I’ve enjoyed helping to educate.

Today, I’m lucky to have a full business partner with whom I proudly share the ever-evolving Green Ink brand; an associate partner who’s commitment to high-end creative development  has been instrumental to our growth; as well as several clients that I now consider as more ‘partners’ as well; people who seem to have as much joy in seeing Green Ink grow as we do.

Of course, none of this could have been possible without the love and support of my life partner who has given council, support and some real sweat to build the equity we now enjoy.

Thank you to all for the trust and continued confidence!

Here’s a list of the addresses Green Ink has had over the years:

An East Norwalk apartment, an Old Saybrook house, an Old Saybrook office, a North Stonington house, a Voluntown house, a Voluntown office, back to the Voluntown house, then 2 Union Plaza in New London and now, The Crocker house in New London.  Nine offices in 20 years; only as much office space as necessary to support the business our clients were looking for.  Our goal all along has been to keep our overhead to a minimum in order to pass on the savings to our clients.

Last week, our latest intern, a third year brainiac from Conn College, issued a press release which was picked up by our local paper.  She is now a PR person.  The Day – Green Ink celebrates 20th anniversary 

The same client who gave me that break at IBM TV 20 years ago commented on the article.  After IBM TV, he became our ‘angel’ for several years in subsequent positions, introducing Green Ink to many of the IBM teams we continue to serve today.  He and his wife moved to the town next door when he retired a few years ago. Maintaining that connection is one of the proudest achievements of my career.  The irony is that I used to deliver the newspaper he once edited in New Britain, CT.

In the next 20 years, I’m hoping to support my team in continuing to build the Green Ink brand through a more solidified network of national and global affiliates.  In business, there are no guarantees, but, if the past 20 years are any indicator, I’m seeing only great things ahead for all of us!

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Traversing an Executive Interview

I admit it. I’m a little tired this week.  At close to fifty, I find that traveling the world and back and forth two hours or so to clients a few times a week to conduct interviews can be a bit taxing.  Plus, as we grow as a business, I can’t be everywhere.  I love conducting interviews – meeting new people who tell me things I don’t know already – but , as we continually strengthen our bench, I thought I’d try to encapsulate the training I’d like empowered Green Ink interviewers to have had.  Don’t get me wrong!  I’m not done traveling the world (at least I hope not), but I can’t keep this up forever!

But it sure has been fun to meet all the amazing minds I’ve been able to explore, to see all the places I’ve been able to see.  I’m lucky to have been entrusted to talk with some of the most influential people in corporate America – and around the world. 

There’s probably very little that I’ve actually developed new here, but I think I’ve been a pretty good sponge and absorbed some reliable tricks of the trade along the way.  I’d love to hear others’ tips that I’ve not included… these are from the perspective of a corporate ‘Producer-Director’.

Chip’s Interview Tips

I remember directing an on-camera executive delivery once with a person who was, even then, a very powerful woman.  Though I believe I’m respectful of people who have attained high rank or fame, I try not to let the situation intimidate me or make me nervous at all.  I felt particularly relaxed in her presence, and I said to someone on the crew, “Oh, she won’t mind doing it again if there’s a problem.” Well, she hadn’t in the past.

And she said, looking at me with a school teacher’s knowing smile, “Oh, she won’t, will she?”  I realized immediately that I had broken a cardinal rule of corporate culture:  I’d presumed. My critical error could have caused her, had she been any less gracious, to foster ill will against ‘that Director‘.

Thankfully, she didn’t say, “Don’t bring that crew back here again.”  But she very well could have.  It’s the little things that can cost a relationship.  Thankfully, she nailed it first take every time and has certainly continued to do so.

As they taught me in Boy Scouts (yes, I was a scout in the ‘don’t-ask-don’t-tell’ era – before the ban’), be prepared.   I hadn’t had my ‘prep’ session.  A bit too relaxed, perhaps.

The Pre-Interview Prep

Start with empathy.  It’s important to understand the executive and their goals; to understand their mood and their comfort level.

Executives do not like to be told what to do any more than any of us like to be told what to do. They also like to know what’s coming. I’ve often heard, “OK, so what are we doing?”  It’s good to be pro-active here.

Be direct.  “First we’re hoping to put you into make up with Milania here, then we’ll ask you to come over to the hot seat where Paul will put a microphone on you, and then we’ll have two or three minutes of final adjustment to the lights, and I’ll give you some more prep then…”

Be attentive, but let the make-up artist do their magic.  A good make-up person will provide a calming, spa-like treatment.  ‘You are special.’  You might use this time to discuss final expectations with the exec’s coordinators (if you haven’t had the pre-interview conference calls you probably should have had).

Ideally, the make-up person will ask questions along the way: “Do you mind…?”, “Are you ok with a little powder…?” “Would it be ok if we…?”  Listen to your subject’s answers.  These are ways of finding out important things like whether a person is nervous or not, whether they’re feeling pampered or poked, whether they understand the mission at hand or have unanswered questions.  If they are still unsure, they’ll typically ask over their shoulder to their comms person or assistant, “So, did you bring those notes?”

Oh no!  Not the notes!   The notes are deadly!  You should keep your mouth shut.  Let them do whatever they want.  It’s their show.  But be prepared to work with the comms person to help make the person feel more comfortable winging it.  Ideally, someone will say, “You know this stuff.” or “If you do it just like you did at the conference, we’ll be great.”

My feeling is, if we’re just regurgitating notes, we might as well publish that as printed material or do a prompter read (which is a whole other blog).

Sometimes, it’s not always judicious to offer marketing advice at that moment and you help them to struggle through.  Other times, it’s all the encouragement the subject needs to take that journey into the unknown with you that will make for much better ‘television’.

If you wouldn’t mind having having a seat, Jim here can put a microphone on you…

You might assume a certain level of media savvy if they’re senior executives, however, if they’re newly appointed, it’s often the case that they’ve not been on camera much before, particularly not in front of a TV studio camera.

It’s important to have on hand an audio technician or camera person who is experienced in ‘wiring’ a person with a corded lavaliere microphone.  Confidence is key.  Combine that with humility and sensitivity.  It’s really a matter of being adult about it and getting through it efficiently.

Again, the audio tech should ask questions: “Can you help me run this up the back of your buttons from here to here?”  Or, “How would you feel about putting it right here, on the lapel of your sweater?”  With women especially, the mic person is often working in a highly sensitive area.  The more ‘clinical’ this sometimes invasive medical procedure can be performed, the better.  Women can tolerate a Dr.’s touch, but not a punk’s.  I’m very conscious of who’s mic-ing my execs.  Trust is key.  Thankfully, I’ve never had a complaint.

Be sure to water your executive!   Put an unopened bottle of water next to the chair and let them know its there.

The Drill

As your team is adjusting the lights, take the opportunity to give a short drill.  I like to deliver something along the lines of:

“This is going to be easy. We’re going to have a conversation that nobody will ever see or hear in its entirety, so there is really no way that you could possibly screw up (or mess up depending on whether you’re subject is from the Midwest or not).  Feel free to stop a sentence and start it over again at any point.  You and I will be having a conversation.  We’ll edit this to take out any uncomfortable pauses, but feel free to just let your mind go and speak as you would in a normal conversation with somebody you are just informing about this subject.

“I don’t want you to be self-conscious, but there are a couple things I would ask you to try to remember…”

“If you could try to avoid using words like ‘as I said’ or ‘like I said before’ or ‘again.’ We very likely won’t have heard what you’ve said before.  We’re going to be taking this conversation and shrinking it down to two or three minutes and we probably won’t have heard that frame of reference, so we’re going to ask that every statement that you make is a complete statement, and we’d like you to try to add some context, because they’ll never hear my questions, they’ll only hear your statements.  It might help, for example, if you used some of my question in your response. ‘What did you have for breakfast this morning?’ ‘For breakfast this morning I had…’  If there is any time that you want to stop recording, just let us know, otherwise we’ll just record continuously.”

“So Paul, do we have speed?”

“Speeding”

During the interview…

Recognize that how you ask the question will dictate how the subject responds.  People have a tendency to mimic the person they’re talking with.  So, avoid ums and ahs and you knows and likes if you don’t want those words to constantly show up in your transcript.  Avoid long, run on sentence questions if you want to avoid having run on responses.

Nod attentively, and keep as much eye contact as is comfortable for you both, but feel free to look down at your notes from time to time to help reenforce your thoughts.  In the case of a customer testimonial, I like to have the customer’s company web site open so I can ask questions that are more relevant.  “I see you’re into tire distribution.  Tell me about that.”

Don’t wait til the end of the response to know what the next question is.  Nothing prevents a ‘conversation’ from happening more than smiling attentively, rewarding them with a ‘that was great,’ and then pausing to look down at your notes for the next question.  “Let me see here… um….”  NO!   Please!   Keep it flowing.  Act interested.  Ideally, you will be sincerely engaged in the subject matter you’re discussing and have a real interest in discovering the unique story or perspective here.  If you’re feeling informed and surprised, then your final viewing audience will as well.

I try to make subjects feel like they’ve come into our living room, into our environment. This is our home that we’re sharing with you, and we want to you to be as comfortable as possible. Relax and we’ll go for a little journey together.

Analogies

I think it helps to compare what we do in interviewing people with other occupations. I was thinking that it’s like bringing somebody into the barber’s chair and being sure to always ask what they’re looking for before assuming anything; to make sure you have that understanding of what the haircut is going to look like before you embark upon the service.  This mindset can help you to help the subject create the story that they want to tell.  I’ve often said, “They’re the expert.  I just try not to get in the way.”

Some have suggested that it’s akin to a dentist chair where you let somebody know that this really might hurt.  If you see they’re nervous, empathize.  “I know this feels painful and you can’t wait to get it over with, but the good thing is, once the camera starts rolling, people usually can’t tell that you’re nervous – and it goes away.  It’ll never feel completely comfortable, but that can also be a good thing.  The good news is: it’ll be over in ten or fifteen minutes.”

Having been in the hot seat, once the camera starts rolling, it can feel to the person who’s ‘on the spot’ like an out of body experience.  Your job is to walk them over to the other side.

Time is Money

So the question is “How much time should we level set the executive interview subject for in terms of time?” We recommend staging interviews within an hour block if they’re back-to-back interviews at a conference or other type of event. Although this schedule can certainly be accelerated and people can be waiting in cue and we can make that a half hour. But this hour allows us to create a window of ability to change lighting, change background. Essentially what we’re looking at from the executive is 5 minutes of make-up, 5 minutes of microphone and chair prep, 15 minutes of conversation and 5 minutes taking of the microphone and taking off any make-up.  And, if the program calls for it, perhaps we can take 15 minutes after the interview to shoot some ‘day-in-the-life’ b-roll.

Devil’s Advocacy

When there’s time, after I’ve exhausted the questions I’ve worked out with the client beforehand (which I try to keep as simple as possible; leading questions; softballs), I ask the subject if they’d mind if we ‘shift gears a bit’ for a couple ‘devil’s advocate’ questions.  Usually, I get a fairly confident, ‘Bring it on’ kind of look.  And I do.

With as broad a smile as I can muster, I’ll pretend I’m a probing reporter, looking for something scandalous.  This is when I’ve found I receive the answers that are best if I’m the one creating the script.  These are the questions the MarComms people are often afraid to ask, but which the discerning viewer is dying to know…

“So, why would I want to buy your product.  Aren’t you just trying to sell me a lisence and then get me hooked on your ‘proprietary’ software?”  You can hear the comms folks gasping.  But the execs – so far – have loved these questions.  No one’s thrown me out on my ear – yet.

Other examples might be, “There are so many brands that are already so established. What makes you think you can beat out some of these competitors?” “You say they’re open standards, but they’re not really ‘open’, are they?’

I haven’t found an executive yet that doesn’t enjoy this type of challenging question and the opportunity to really drive home the passion behind the product or the brand.

These answers will usually have the ability to cut through the noise and answer the FAQ’s most don’t dare ask.

Off-Camera Approach

For the past 20 plus years, the defining ‘style’ for interview-based video, or ‘cinema verite’ has been for the interview subject to look just off camera, with the interviewer hugging the lens to create an ‘almost talking directly to us’ feel.  I’d expect this style to continue to be used and there are still videos that benefit from this style.  If this is the preferred approach, you’ll want to make sure the subject knows to, “Look at me, not the camera.  The camera’s not there.  Try to ignore everyone and everything else.  It’s just you and me having a conversation,” and I do a back and forth gesture between my eyes and theirs.  The first question of, “Can you tell me your name and spell if for me.” is a good first test of whether they’re heeding your advice.

Direct to Camera?  You betcha!

Ever since seeing Errol Morris‘ fantastic IBM documentary for Ogilvy, 100 by 100, I’ve come to love the credibility of a direct-to-camera approach.  Talk about not getting in the way.

But how can you help the subject to be comfortable in this environment, to not feel abandoned, like a deer in the headlights?

Errol Morris uses an innovative (albeit expensive and large footprint) two-camera, two teleprompter system that allows the interviewer’s head to appear in the subject’s prompter screen and vice versa.  In this way, the two can have a conversation as if in a video conference environment.  A less expensive and I think equally valid approach is for using only one prompter.  Though a second prompter helps, the interviewer doesn’t necessarily need to see the subject directly.

But corporate budgets do often allow for a prompter and, I’ve found we just don’t need one to achieve a comfortable look.  I’ve developed my own approach that I feel works well for the corporate world…

I give the subject my normal prep as if it’s ‘just you and me having a conversation’.   Except here, I tell them, “But let’s pretend you’re on the moon and you’re talking to me back in mission control.”

And then I duck under the camera; sitting cross-legged under the camera on the floor or just off to the side, bowing my head down so as not to distract the person, and then I point right into the lens.  “OK. So, I’m right in here.”   

And, it really shouldn’t, but it works!

The subjects relax and I’m right there with them, engaged in conversation…  I pretend I’m blind and sometimes I’ve found myself rocking back and forth in agreement.  It helps me to focus on their messaging and develop my thoughts for the next question.

This has been an especially effective approach in marketing programs and webcast roll-ins where we’re trying to really engage the viewer.  Executives seem to be fine with this, though some prefer a prompter or notes in front of them if they’re going direct-to-camera.

I asked a CEO of one of the top petroleum companies in the world if he minded doing an interview direct-to-camera vs. to off-camera, and he told me it really doesn’t matter to him as long as there is someone there that he can talk to.

So I’ll end this on that note.  Cause isn’t that what it’s all been about?  Finding interesting people to talk to?   In the case of the executive interview, it’s not about you having to be interesting.  It’s really about finding what’s interesting about the person you’re talking with – so other people can share in the insight.

Here’s to all the interviewers out there!  I think most would agree, we’re a lucky lot!